Monday, September 29, 2014

Querying and Dealing with Rejection - Revisited

Hello Fellow Writers. :) Today was my day to blog--I knew it in advance, set an alarm on my phone, circled it on a calendar (so primitive of me!) and yet still, despite having the best of intentions, I ran out of time. I know all of you totally understand how the balance of work work, writing work, and life can get the best of us. Throw in there a few doc visits for some sick kiddos and suddenly you're unable to meet a deadline.

So I hope you'll forgive me for recycling an old post. This was one of my first for RW and one of my favorites since it still applies. Enjoy and thanks so much for reading. :)


So you’ve finished your book, ran it through your critique group (or groups) edited, edited, edited, sent it to a handful of Beta Readers, edited it again and now you’re finally ready to get that book to a publisher. Time to celebrate, right?

Wait! Stop the confetti toss -- there are several more steps.  Okay, sure, take a minute to be proud of yourself. Eat a Twinkie. Play ‘Crazy Train’ on your air guitar. Sing ‘I am the Champion’ at the top of your lungs. You completed a book. WOOT! WOOT! Someone once told me that only a small percentage of persons who start a book ever finish it. I’m not sure how true that is, but it’s nice to think that I’ve accomplished something special.  A few times actually… But my other manuscripts gathering dust were great opportunities to develop my skills, right??

For any of us who’ve decided to get our books traditionally published, we know what’s next.  Oh yes.  I’m talking about catching the attention of an awesome literary agent, an amazing cheerleader-negotiator-guidance counselor-editor-marketing guru who’ll love our words as much as we do. But in order to catch the attention of an agent, we first must enter *cue evil music* the dreaded Query Zone. 
 Don’t misunderstand. Literary agents aren’t evil. Actually, every agent I’ve encountered either formally (SCBWI conferences) or informally (Twitter, rejection emails/letters, blog posts) have all been polite and professional. And I’d go a step farther and say they have even been pretty dang nice! Not yet have I met one with a set of horns, spear-ended tail or split tongue.

I know, I know -- when I decided to write a book I was supposed to slap myself around for a good year or two to develop that thick skin.*picture Arnold Schwarzenegger – I eat green berets for breakfast!* Because writers trying to break into the ‘biz’ should know that rejections are just part of the cycle…

Yes, of course, rejections are part of the process. But the truth? No matter how cool I want to appear to fellow writers and family (you know what I’m talking about -- that brush off the shoulder – oh yea, I eat rejections for breakfast!). The truth is rejections hurt.  There I’ve said it – in front of everyone. They HURT dang it!!

*jumping down from soapbox* Since I’m revealing everything, let me go a step farther and admit that not only do rejections hurt, but I’ve actually developed different levels of rejectionitis.

A rejection from a query – a twinge of discomfort deep in my belly.

A rejection from a query, synopsis and sample pages - heaviness in the abdomen.

A rejection from a partial – moderate, lingering discomfort in the chest and a burning sensation on the back of my neck (I know weird, right? Last time my husband almost dialed 911)

And finally, a rejection from a full – all the above plus nauseous sometimes with or without vomiting. 

Okay, so I could go on and on, but enough whining.  I've actually found ways for dealing with rejectionitis.

Clown Around: Laughter really is good for the soul and I can often find the humor in pretty much anything. In truth, though, clowns kinda freak me out.

The Rotation: Send out a new query every time a rejection comes in. I researched and found fifty agents I thought might be a good fit for my book and notated them in Query Tracker. Then I sent out ten queries. Every time a rejection comes in, I send a new query out to the next agent on my list. It feels good to know that even though an agent has passed there’s another who might feel that special connection with my story. (Did you know in Twitter and Tumblr there is a Manuscript Wish List? Check it out #MSWL)

Go West Side Story: Reach out to your posse – your fellow writers who have been there. It’s nice to remember you’re not alone. *When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way*

Get Possessed: Jump into a new story. There’s something therapeutic about making up new worlds and throwing yourself into them. Into the story that is – not the pits of hell.

Of course, when you query, it’s important to follow the rules.  Spend time researching the agents to make sure they handle what you’ve written and personalize your message to them.

So, now that you have permission to stomp your feet and scream “Why not me?” Do share. How do you handle rejections?

photo credit: CherrySoda! via photopin cc photo credit: bunchofpants via photopin cc

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Okay to Take a Break

Writing is exhausting.

I love, love, love writing. Have I mentioned that I love it? Because I LOVE it. But just like any other job, working nonstop can result in major burnout. Symptoms of burnout include, but are not limited to: fatigue, irritability, and the desire to throw your computer across the room because JUST FIX YOURSELF, MANUSCRIPT.

Ahem. It’s possible I almost reached burnout status recently. The feelings are still a bit raw.

For the safety of computers everywhere (and our brains), I’m going to talk about something that has become a lifesaver for me: Mental Health Days, or what I lovingly refer to as brain breaks. As awesome as our brains are, they can become overworked and worn, just like any other part of our bodies. They need rest.

On that same note, the creativity well needs refilling every now and then. We need books and movies. We need walks outside and we need sunlight. Heck, sometimes we need to binge-watch twelve hours of Friday Night Lights on Netflix. These things give us material to keep the gears turning.

And to be completely honest, sometimes you just need a break. Sometimes you’re worn-out with this whole writing thing, just like with any other job. And that’s okay! It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Mental Health Days can last a day, or a week, or even a month or two. If you’re facing a deadline, a month-long break may not be feasible, but walking away from the computer for a day or two can work wonders.

The bottom line here is to give yourself a little grace. Don’t beat yourself up for not being a production factory. Brains need to recharge. Creativity needs to recharge. You need to recharge. It’s okay to take care of yourself. Promise.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Plots and Possibilities: Taking Cheryl Klein's Plot Master Class

The plot that was fine was not fine. 

Last month, my plot lines, in all their one-dimensional glory, spread across the pages of my work-in-progress. They seemed content. They were fine

Fast forward one month. I had the chance to attend Cheryl Klein's Plot Master Class in Sioux Falls, SD. During the class, odd things began happening to my manuscript. Certain story lines, tired of the murky depths I'd left them in, slogged their way to the surface. Two of my minor characters plead their case for more significant roles.  

My former one-dimensional plot lines pushed and stretched until they stood off the pages, like the three-dimensional peaks and valleys they wanted to be. 

It was eye-opening to say the least.

Things that are worth doing...

Second Sight. You can find it HERE.
Cheryl Klein is the Executive Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Books. I'd heard Ms. Klein speak at a conference in Miami and thought she was brilliant. I got a copy of her book Second Sight and enjoyed it very much.  When I learned she was teaching her Plot Master Class at a SCBWI-Dakotas event, I knew I had to go.  

After I registered, I got an email with some instructions attached. This would not be a typical, listen-and-learn conference setting. Nope. There was homework. 

If you can bookmap with 2 screens: BONUS.
To get the most out of Cheryl Klein's Plot Master Class, you need to do the assignments. She asked each participant to create a bookmap of their current WIP. This meant analyzing each scene (with special guidance, she sent us instructions). She also asked us to read Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, an award-winning YA novel that she edited. Marcelo served as our touchstone read for examples through the bookmapping and work-shopping process. (sidenote: Marcelo in the Real World is amazing.)

The workshop itself ran two days. For two days, Ms. Klein helped us critically examine the different nuances of plot and structure, and how we could apply these theories to our very own WIPs. We also hit on characterization and voice. It forced me to really put the screws to my WIP--and it creaked. 

It was a little scary. My WIP suddenly fluttered with orange CAUTION! flags. Holes to fill. Themes to dredge. Characters to bolster. More fixes than I'd thought.

Missed Opportunities: Avoided. 

But on my three hour drive home, my head-spinning slowed, and excitement took over. I had real ideas for making  my manuscript better. Maybe much better. Every fluttering flag alerted me to a possible missed opportunity. I want kids to read this book and have fun.The adventure, the humor, the creepiness, the warm-fuzzy parts--I want these elements to be the best they can be. The bookmapping and work-shoppping made the path more clear. 

A most worthwhile journey indeed for this Revision Warrior.



Pamela Merchant, Regional Advisor for the SCBWI-Dakotas, was responsible for bringing Cheryl Klein to Sioux Falls. I asked Pam how she thought to bring the Plot Master Class to South Dakota:

"The reason I wanted to feature editor Cheryl Klein is to fill a void in our conference line-up for SCBWI-Dakotas. We tend to offer more workshops and speakers for picture book writers and illustrators, and often for beginning authors and illustrators. I felt we needed to focus on intermediate to published authors with a concentration on novel writing.

At the 2013 SCBWI national conference in New York the buzz was on Cheryl Klein and her editing workshop. Everyone was talking about her and how much they were learning from this co-editor of the last two Harry Potter novels. I contacted her at Scholastic and a year and a half later, we were able to host here here in the Dakotas." 

- Pamela Merchant, Regional Advisor SCBWI-Dakotas 

I want to say a big thanks to Pam for all the hard work she put into organizing this outstanding event. We attendees were all so fortunate Pam knew about this very buzz-worthy class. THANK YOU PAM!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Nurture Your Inner Outliner

With die hard pantsers on the far left hand of the scale and hardcore plotters on the far right, chances are you fall somewhere in between. I want to start out this post by saying that whatever amount of pantsing or plotting you do, if it works for you, you’re in good shape.

This is NOT a post about the RIGHT way to get a story started, because a right way doesn’t exist. If you poll 100 writers about their process, you’ll get 100 different answers as evidenced by the My Writing Process Blog Tour.

Click here to read about how our own RW’s do it. And click here if you want to check out how hundreds of other authors get there stories rolling.

If you haven’t landed on a process that works for you and you’ve wanted to try plotting more seriously, this post might help with that. Or at the very least, it may give you some ideas that you can take in your own direction.

So here’s a little about me and my pantser-wishing-I-were-a-plotter woes.

I’ve been a plotter wannabe for a long time, because for me, pantsing has led to a lot of rewriting. I happen to be one of those folks who loves revision with the burning intensity of a thousand suns. But drafting? Meh. It’s hard for me translate ideas into actual words. Ideas are big. Words are tiny, and you need a lot of them to complete a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, my love for words rivals my love for Christmas, and coffee, and chocolate combined. It’s just that my preference leans toward making them pretty during revision. Andplusalso, I have a hard time turning off my internal editor, which can make the drafting phase slower than it needs to be. I recently tweeted this and it's something I have to remind myself of often.

Another thing I love is story structure. At first I thought, I can just keep all this structure stuff in my head while I trail blaze a first draft, but the more I learned about structure, the more I realized how directly related it is to having a sold plot BEFORE I begin to write. I guess sometimes I need to learn my lessons the hard way. But before I dive into the details of how I plotted my new WIP, here's a few things that changing my process has helped with:

  • Working out a solid story structure
  • Visual representation of events timeline and whether they are feasible or require adjusting (this one was a biggie)
  • Staggering reveals and plot twists for maximum impact (another biggie)
  • Setting up reveals and twists with appropriate foreshadowing
  • Ensure subplots are organically woven throughout the entire story
  • Connecting plot threads
  •  Discovering gaps in logic
  •  Uncovering plot holes before they turn into problems
  •  Creating strong character arcs
  • Identifying weak spots and making them stronger
  •  Establishing strong GMC’s (goals, motivation, conflicts) for every character
  • Can efficiently draft out of sequence, because I know what needs to happen in every scene and how they’re connected (yet another biggie)
  • Will *hopefully* minimize the necessity for major rewrites during revision

This list is by no means all-inclusive, but those are some of the really big issues that plotting allowed me to tackle up front. Now, let’s get on to the main event.

I’ve always wanted to use index cards and create a grandiose storyboard, but kept stalling out because writing in actual ink seemed too permanent when I knew things were going to change. I did some research and tried out several online cork boards. The two I like the best are Spaaze and Popplet.

Both are free, easy to use, and have excellent features. I ended up using Popplet because it’s simple and I didn’t want designing the board to draw focus away from designing my plot. With Popplet, you create little bubbles that can be connected together. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

So here's what I did. AKA The Process
(At the bottom of this section, there’s a pic of what the *mostly* final board looks like)

Step 1) I wrote a few sentences about each scene I knew would be in the book. Each scene got its own little bubble. 

I’m a fan of 3 Act structure, because it gives me a reference for where things need to happen and keeps the story pacing on target. For instance, if I’m shooting for a 70K word novel, I want the first act to take approximately ¼ of my total word count, which brings me to:

Step 2) I created 4 new bubbles: ACT 1, ACT 2 Part 1, ACT 2 Part 2, and ACT 3. Then I sorted my scene bubbles beside the act I felt they would fall into.

I also really like the Save the Cat beat sheet. Just like with using 3 Act structure, Blake Snyder’s beat sheet helps me pace reveals and plot points so they are staggered throughout each act. Writer and blogger Jamie Gold has an awesome downloadable beat sheet, which she adjusted for novel writers. (Plus she has bunch of other goodies there as well, so you should totally check it all out.)

Step 3) I created new bubbles for each beat I wanted to hit in the book and used them as headers, connecting them with the scenes I’d already included.

At this stage, I didn’t have enough ‘beat’ scenes written yet. This was my first clue that had I already started writing, I’d be missing essential story elements that I wanted to include. I was thrilled to discover this now instead of later.

Step 4) Filled in the remaining beats with new scenes.

Step 5) Evaluated the big picture with a focus on the timeline of events and reordered and/or added new scenes in order to create a realistic timeline. 

Ex: there’s a section of the story where the POV character needs to write and receive a series of letters. It’s a day and a half journey one way from sender to receiver, and I realized that in my budding outline I had letters coming and going WAY too quickly. She was receiving replies to her correspondence before her letter could have reached its reader. This could have been a giant problem had I figured this out after completing the first draft. I got off my butt and happy danced over discovering and fixing this issue ahead of time.

Step 6) I looked at scenes that were weak. These said something vague like: Two days pass leading up to (event) and MC is upset about X. I fleshed these out into actual scenes and found that these were good spots to advance the subplot, which at that point was still pretty light.

Step 7) Checked all major plot points, reveals, pinch points, and twists were evenly spaced and adjusted where necessary. (And oh, there was lots of adjusting)

Step 8) Once the main plot, sub plot, and timeline were solid and evenly paced, I considered other details like where more foreshadowing was needed in order to build to certain reveals, and I added notes about which scenes could support that info.

Step 9) A little estimating is required here. I evaluated each scene and decided whether it was enough to support an entire chapter or whether it needed to be connected with the scene beside it. Knowing about how long my chapters run and my aim for the final word count of this book, I estimated needing at least thirty chapters to get me to The End.  I was close, but needed a little more and spent some time seeing what could be added to either make new scenes or flesh out existing scenes into standalone chapters.

*When I was finished and ready to move onto phase two, my Popplet looked like this:

(Note 1: yes, Act 3 is empty. Endings are my nemesis and I simply cannot fully plot them out in advance. So even though I’m hardcore plotting this book, there will still be some pantsing involved.)

(Note 2: this process took about a week to complete

Step 10) I did this part in MS Word due to a heartbreaking loss of work in Scrivener that I haven’t completely recovered from. *wipes away fresh tears*

Personally, I’m not good at working with two documents. Now that I had everything plot-wise setup, I wanted to transfer it to my working document. If you’re working in Word, the navigation pane is your best friend. Learn it, live it, love it. For reals. If you’re not familiar with the navigation pane, there are lots of tutorials out there. Bottom line is that you need to use headers to make it work for you. Doing this allows you to jump around your document without wearing out your mouse’s scroll bar.

I modified my heading styles to look like this

New Act’s are heading 1, all standard chapters are heading 2, a plot point or pinch point chapter is header 3 or 4 respectively, and my outline and any other documents notes I add are heading 5.
Then I typed in my Act numbers and chapter headers in their appropriate headings, and then copied and pasted each scene from Popplet under the chapter it belongs with. When that was done, my navigation pane looked like this:

 Setting up the document this way makes moving around it easier, which is a huge time saver once the word count begins adding up. Pasting each scene from Popplet into Word was a bit tedious, however in long run, I’m glad I did it. I can click on anything in the navigation pane and jump straight to that section. When I get there, I know exactly what I need to write about. 

I’d never written out of order before, because as a pantser, I had only a bleary idea of what would happen a scene or two past what I was currently working on. This time, I felt confident skipping from chapter 7 to chapter 20, because my outline is solid and I’ve already justified the inclusion of every single scene.

I'm finding the freedom to work on any story section I choose is incredibly freeing. Some days, an emotion-heavy scene might be right up my alley, but on another day, I’m too drained to dig as deep as that sort of scene demands. Now I have options, and my word count is increasing much faster than when I my only choice was to write scenes in order.

Aaaand, that’s it. I’ll just add a quick shout out to a few of my favorite books on plot and structure. Save the Cat and Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. And lastly, K.M. Weiland’s entire blog, but especially her Structuring Your Scenes series, which is ah-fricken-mazing.

I know this was a long post, and I appreciate you guys sticking with me. I hope you found something in here that’s helpful. Now go forth and write all the words!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Just do it


I tell myself this every day. And most days, I do. Some days, I don't. As a writer, if I don't, then I feel a sense of... undoneness. I know that is not a word, but that's how I feel. Like I didn't do what I was supposed to do. Like I put all the clothes and detergent in the washer and forgot to shut the lid.

I had a BLAST at WriteOnCon last week. I met new writers, cleaned up my query, 1st 250 words, 1st five pages, and that's writing. Rewriting, revising, editing--whatever you want to call it. What I missed? Writing something new. Writing something that I haven't thought of before. I guess the words were, technically, new because I hadn't put them together in that order yet. What I really think I missed the new idea. The next project. The next novel my brain is going to go crazy over.

Then, I read this on writing by the fabulous Victoria Marini. Encouragement, yes! Am I going to make some goals that will fall apart? Probably. But I want to write. I love it. Need it. Crave it. If I don't do it, I'm not me. It took me years to figure that out. That somehow, in my brain, people I don't know and don't exist show up and talk about their lives. Their situations. Their loss. Their love. Their pain. I want to listen. I want to write about it.

Will you join me?

How about you? What do you feel after a conference? Elated? Dejected? Tell me. I want to know. :)